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Trust Fractures: How to Avoid Accidentally Eroding Your Brand’s Credibility

Posted on Jun 20th, 2019
Written by Nick Nelson
  • Blog
  • B2B Marketing
  • Trust Fractures: How to Avoid Accidentally Eroding Your Brand’s Credibility
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    Avoiding Unintended Brand Trust Fractures

    Recently, we’ve been running a series of posts here on the TopRank Marketing Blog called “Trust Factors,” where we explore techniques that modern brands can use to build trust and credibility with digital audiences. There are numerous examples of companies building trust with best-answer content and boosting credibility with influencer marketing for this purpose.

    Marketers are always seeking creative ways to forge genuine connections while standing out from the pack. New research from Edelman shows that consumers now have higher expectations than ever when it comes to brand responsibility. However, it’s worth pointing out that these efforts (even with the best of intentions) can backfire.

    When steps taken to strengthen trust instead have the opposite effect, we call these “Trust Fractures.” A recent example got me thinking about the subject, and why marketers everywhere should be cognizant of its lurking danger.

    A (North) Face Plant on Wikipedia

    Wikipedia. According to Moz, its domain authority is among the highest on the web. Search marketers are accustomed to competing with the community-driven online resource’s informational results atop SERPs of all kinds. Brands occasionally attempt to co-opt Wikipedia’s popularity and inherent trust factor in various ways.

    The North Face, an outdoor recreation product and clothing company, recently teamed up with agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made for a seemingly savvy initiative: taking high-quality photos of athletes in North Face gear at notable locations around the globe, then uploading them as featured pictures for the pages covering those landmarks on Wikipedia.

    The idea is pretty straightforward; when a user runs a Google search to learn about state parks and mountains and the like, they’ll click on the Wikipedia entry and find North Face products and logos within the imagery. In addition to the powerful authority for an image hosted on helping these graphics rank very highly in image searches, there’s also the subconscious connection created in one’s mind when they see the North Face brand embedded in photos of these beautiful places.

    For a while, it seemed to be working, as explained by a recent writeup in AdAge. But when Wikipedia’s moderators became aware of the scheme, they were none too pleased. Unsurprisingly, this kind of activity goes against the non-profit website’s terms of service.

    “Adding content that is solely intended to promote a company or its products goes against the spirit, purpose and policies of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world. It exploits a free public learning platform for corporate gain,” said a representative from the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit that runs Wikipedia.


    “What The North Face and Leo Burnett did wasn’t clever or impressive—it was duplicitous, using Wikipedia’s openness against it, and in fact was directly contradictory to Wikipedia’s Terms of Use,” one of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors told AdAge. This particular editor, William Beutler, also happens to be the CEO of his own agency (Beutler Ink), making his sharp words toward Leo Burnett extra-spicy.

    Wikipedia’s editors removed the offending images. North Face issued an apology. Perhaps they still consider the entire endeavor worthwhile given all the attention it garnered. But in their effort to gain brand trust and recognition by earning high search placements and associating (indirectly) with the Wikipedia name, North Face and its agency come out looking at best aloof, and at worst “duplicitous.”

    How to Steer Clear of Trust Fractures

    Sometimes, Trust Fractures are the simple results of blatant missteps by a brand or its representatives. These are relatively easy to avoid (don’t do shady stuff!). Instances like the one above, where a trust-diminishing situation arises as an unforeseen consequence, are tougher to eradicate but can be reduced through deeper and more comprehensive planning.

    Here are a few steps you can take to ensure your programs are strengthening trust rather than weakening it.

    #1: Do Things for the Right Reasons

    You can’t — for lack of a better term — “black-hat” your way into trust. There’s no gaming human emotions. If your brand’s actions aren’t genuine, people (and even search algorithms) will get wise, because both are growing a lot more adept.

    There’s no gaming human emotions. If your brand’s actions aren’t genuine, people (and even search algorithms) will get wise, because both are growing a lot more adept. @NickNelsonMN #TrustInMarketing Share on X

    If you create content solely for the purpose of ranking high on search, rather than fulfilling your audience’s questions and curiosities, then a best-answer approach isn’t going to deliver the results you desire. The former should arrive as a natural consequence of the latter. I’ve come across numerous keyword-stacked pages that bury you in lead-gen fields as soon as you arrive. Not only will users reject these kinds of tactics, but because of the correspondingly low time-on-page and high bounce rates, Google will too.

    The same goes for influencer marketing. When done right, as a mutually beneficial and fully engaged partnership, it’s a boon for credibility. But if you’re merely paying someone to associate your brand with them, it’s likely to be transparent to both their following and yours. We see this a lot in the B2C Instagram space, which (from my view) helps explain why millennials are reporting lower levels of influencer trust.

    So I repeat: do things for the right reasons. Was there a purpose in North Face’s Wikipedia-image play other than sneaking its brand name into objective informational content? Perhaps, but it doesn’t really come off looking that way.

    #2: Avoid the Fauxthenticity Pitfall

    I wrote about this last year, and it goes hand-in-hand with the point above. Basically, when brands try too hard to convey authenticity in hopes of building trust with their audience, it can make them look even more out-of-touch.

    This is the core issue afflicting many pay-to-play influencer engagements with Instagram celebrities, including one particularly cringeworthy example I cited in the linked post. When I see someone with millions of followers write nice but seemingly scripted things about a product, followed by hashtags indicating it’s an #ad, I have a really hard time trusting the legitimacy of the endorsement. I know I’m not alone.

    #3: Think Through Outcomes and Next-Steps

    Thinking strategically is always vital as a marketer, especially in cases like these. That means looking at the big picture. What was the end-game with North Face’s image play? Did their agency foresee this possibility? They probably should have, since Wikipedia’s terms aren’t locked up in secret somewhere.

    With any trust-building initiative, it’s important to account for what comes next. Where might things go wrong? Are there angles we aren’t considering? How might a certain action be perceived differently than we’re intending?

    Without the benefit of experience and seasoned perspective, it can be difficult if not impossible to think through all the effects that might ripple outward from a program or campaign. In this regard, it’s extremely helpful to enlist an agency partner with a strong track record of astute judgment.

    Keep Marketing Trust Intact

    When looking at the present digital marketing landscape, I frequently think about the saying that trust is gained in drops and lost in buckets. It’s so true, and so germane to this particular discussion. We as brands work so hard to establish and sustain genuine trust with our customers, prospects, and audiences that preventable backslides can be a real gut-punch.

    As the old adage goes: Trust is gained in drops and lost in buckets. #B2BMarketing #trust Share on X

    Here at TopRank Marketing, we’ve written often (and will continue to write often) about Trust Factors that can solidify relationships between your company and the people it serves. But it is equally important to be aware of potential Trust Fracture risks.

    By maintaining genuine intentions, avoiding forced authenticity, and adhering to a holistic strategic vision, you’ll be on track to stay clear of face plants and fissures in the delicate balance of trust.

    Want to learn more about the state of marketing trust today, with plenty of data-driven insight? Check out Tip of the Iceberg: A Story of Trust in Marketing as Told by Statistics